Seamless the sun rose for the last day of that month, before darkness threatened to coat every shred of concrete in the industrial town. Over his morning coffee, Tommy’s father growled “just another week for electricity bills to go up.” Although straight faced under his father’s angered gaze, Tommy longed for that day to end; preferring to be cramped in darkness than the cold schools. In darkness he could read and learn what he pleased without the distraction of other classes. Straightening his tie nervously, Tommy anticipated the new ‘Book of Bugs and Insects’ his teacher had promised to give him.
Before long his bare legs were braving the cold which bounced from the steel gates of the school. As he skipped down the stairs of the ally, Tommy tripped and tore a small hole in his left knee. Checking he had not pulled the hem of his shorts, an embarrassed flush built in his cheeks once he realised a man had seen him fall. While rushing to hobble past, Tommy only noticed his bespoke features. Grey hair tangled and tumbling. Mud and some blood holding together a ripped coat. Clearly the man was homeless. But another matter caught Tommy’s attention. A sign rigidly clamped between his frozen hands:
DON’T BE BLIND IN THE BLACKOUT.
Thinking this was merely a warning to pay for your electricity, Tommy allowed the thought to escape. It wasn’t rare to hear stories: People whom could no longer pay for light and had to move away to find other funds. Of course, they could never know where they had gone. Without any power it was impossible to communicate widely. Letters a distant memory for the time it took to reach anyone. No response was ever heard, communities disappearing with their words.
Upon reaching his classroom, Tommy had forgotten his embarrassment and took his usual seat next to Darren. They had been mediocre friends through the entirety of school, each appreciating the other was just trying to get through. Sharing the same stirring sickness for the plasticity of their surroundings, they joined together in silent conversations. Despite Darren’s lack of As and Tommy’s lack of Fs, their thoughts rested mutually. Both believed there was something bigger.
Today, Darren was seated before Tommy entered the room. He rested his head on his hands, pushing his round cheeks up into his eyes. This slovenly nature, though likely for Darren, compelled Tommy to ask what was up.
“I’m going to be so bored this blackout,” Darren murmured from behind his hands, “mum says I can’t play any games because we can’t afford the power.”
“That sucks,” as someone who wasn’t interested in consoles, Tommy wasn’t really certain what this palaver could mean to Darren. But it clearly had him down.
“I might turn it on while they’re sleeping – that would be stupid though, wouldn’t it Tommy?”
“If I only I enjoyed reading, like you.”
Their day continued with no more interruptions. The last day of school before a blackout was always slightly restless, attention drawn to the entertainment needed for the long days ahead. Even Tommy, with an hour to go before the last bell, began to twitch with anticipation.
Eventually the day ended and Mr. Douglas allowed the class to hurriedly pile out, warning, “Get home quick and safe. No dawdling.”
On the contrary, Tommy sauntered behind afraid of disappointment. But Mr Douglas was already selecting the title from his draw, keen to provide a bulb during the darkness, “Here it is Tommy, as promised.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, hurry home. You’ll never know how blind you can be, until you lose your sight.”
Tommy, slightly more chipper with the book under arm, trotted off to be home for dinner. His home was many dull streets away; his town thankfully not plagued with tourists who would find the monotonous greys confusing to navigate. On the highest point of the town, Tommy’s house soaked up the last rays of sun. Before entering, Tommy turned and took a last look. From here he could see the machines extending their arms, ready to block all natural light for the next week.
Soon adapting and forgetting the world outside his home, Tommy spent his time reading under the gentle buzz of electricity during the day and candle by night. His family resided in the living room, all together, so only one room required lighting. Mother had moved the kettle to the side table ready for tea or hot water, and accompanied it with dry biscuits. At night they lit the fire and candles and cosily slipped into sleeping bags in a row on the floor. It could be frustratingly warm, causing Tommy to be sleepless and continue reading instead of dreaming. One restless night, Tommy indulged in a section on snails that effectively made him put down the book and think over the words until the fire had died with his activity.
By the end of the week, everyone was ready to return to the other side of their normality. Tommy greeted the light and embraced the adjustment period his eyes took before he could pave his way back to school. Clinging to his chest was the book Mr Douglas had given to him; heavy and not quite ready to return. Tommy had pondered how he was to ask Mr Douglas about the snails. Of course he understood what the book was conveying, but something didn’t sit right about the way it was written. Like a secret code, he believed the passage was not simply discussing snails, but something bigger. Perhaps firstly, he thought, he should show it to Darren. Having never finished a book in his life, if Darren could conclude the same maybe it would be their conspiracy natured minds allowing them to see something that didn’t exist.
Ready to present the page to Darren with his finger bookmarking the page, Tommy was surprised when his friend wasn’t in his seat. Looking back over the playground, he was nowhere to be seen. Although he couldn’t recall a time Darren had been late, Tommy started to wonder what might happen to him if he was. Incompetent as Darren was, it was tardiness that wasn’t tolerated here. When Mr Douglas entered the class, Tommy braced himself for the possibility he may be the one asked to excuse Darren’s behaviour.
Starting to feel sick at the sight of the empty seat, Tommy intently watched his teacher take stance before the otherwise occupied desks. Pale, his shoulders raised and hands in pockets; an adult, yet small and timid; he announces “Class, please note Darren will not be coming back to school for the foreseeable future.”
Momentarily catching eye contact, Mr Douglas quickly broke free from Tommy’s astounded eyes and continued in his naturally cheery nature to write on the blackboard. Just like that his friend was gone and Tommy suddenly felt very visible as though sitting under a spotlight, unaware of how many people were drifting in the crowd around him. On recollecting their last conversation, he took his pen to paper and wrote Darren a farewell letter:
You said you wanted to love reading, so I thought a letter from me might be a good place to start. Where have you gone? The classroom feels empty without you, as though the equivalent of ten children have left your place.
I hope you come back soon or I can visit you. If you like reading this, maybe you would like to borrow the book Mr. Douglas gave me. I finished the whole lot during blackout. My favourite part was about the snails. Did you know, us humans move too quickly for them. They can’t see us go by.
I think you’d really like it mate. When you’re back, I’ll lend you this book and then we can imagine the snails together. Until then.